Customer support glee - who would have thought?!

Unpacking the joy of doing live customer support at OpenUp


Something strange has happened to me - I caught myself enjoying and actually looking forward to doing online customer support.

Let’s take a few steps back and allow me paint the full picture for you.

I’ve spent 16 years working in various parts of the tech world and I can strongly attest to customer support being one of the least liked aspects of this industry, even though the people doing it are often superheroes. And I completely understand it too - I’ve been that irate customer on the other side of an email/live chat/phone call - filled with barely bridled self-righteous rage, clenching my jaw as I painstakingly tell the support agent my woes, for the fifth time, hoping for something to be different in their response.

Why then, when we at OpenUp decided to implement a live chat widget on some of our products, did I jump at the opportunity to ‘man the desk’ so to speak, but more than that, I surprised myself along the way by really enjoying it and getting deep satisfaction from it?

The answer to the first part of that question is easy - why did I jump at the opportunity? Well, to get to know our users a little better. Analytics can only provide so much insight into who is visiting and why, so the chance to speak to real-life users and understand their needs, is a super exciting one. From a product management perspective, we have some interesting conundrums to unpack. We have a number of products built without much of a clear understanding of the user needs and requirements. It was more of a case of ‘build it and they will come’. Which they did, sort of. But to ensure that we develop a relevant product roadmap that adds value and speaks to the requirements of our users, we really need to start understanding these users a bit more. Which is where this widget fits in.

The answer to the second part of that question really took me by surprise and I had to spend a little time thinking about it. Why do I enjoy it so much?

The answer here lies squarely with the type of products OpenUp builds. All my previous experience has been in the commercial sector - all product support was aligned to users being able to do something and ultimately being charged for it. Typical customer service then, so what makes this different?

Well, the products we build have no commercial funnel to them. We are not trying to sell services or a product. Instead, a lot of what we offer are informational products - take Wazimap for instance. Under that sexy interface is a bunch of data (IEC and Census data) which is actually freely available for anyone to use, we just make it that much easier by providing an interface to these (now combined) datasets along with some additional functionality, like mini analyses and ward-level comparisons. Open By-laws is another example - these are simply municipal by-laws that have been collated in a single place and made searchable, allowing this information to suddenly be a lot more accessible to most. Interestingly enough we expected queries relating to finding specific by-laws, which hasn’t turned out to be the case. Instead we receive glimpses into serious issues being experienced by citizens - what to do about a shebeen being run out of a neighbour’s house? How to get help for the elderly neighbour being verbally abused all hours of the day?

I realised my satisfaction in providing support to people who use our products is because they have a real-life problem that we could potentially help them to solve.

It also provided me with a great opportunity to encourage users to be more active in their communities - to seek out and understand what democratic, participative processes are available to them and how using them can make a difference in their own lives.

If you manage a product and are feeling a little out of touch with your users, I strongly encourage you to get closer to them, to really listen to how they use your product, what pain points they experience and what they would like to see in the future. There are a host of tools and techniques at your disposal (often the hardest part, once deciding to understand your users a bit better, is picking a tool to get started with) ranging from spending a bit of time with analytics on your site, this is especially valuable if you have set up conversion goals, to hosting focus group sessions, in-person usability testing, surveys, competitions and speaking to non-users to understand what it would take for them to become users.

Product management might seem like a dark art, but with the right tools and attitude it can be a more precise science.